Japan offer some potential as a source of budget enablers for World Cup Fantasy.
However, the Samurai Blue have been under the guidance of coach Akira Nishino for just three matches and could struggle in Russia.
We’ve got everything you need to know about Group H’s Asian representative.
ROAD TO QUALIFICATION
Despite finishing top of their final qualifying group in the Asian region, it has been a rocky route to the World Cup for Japan. In fact, the opening match of the third round’s Group B schedule saw the Samurai Blue lose at home to United Arab Emirates. Results improved after that with important wins against rivals for top spot Australia and Saudi Arabia, and by the time they lost to the latter in the final match they had already booked their place in Russia.
However, throughout qualifying a battle of ideals was going on between then manager Vahid Halilhodzic and his squad. The outspoken Bosnian was critical of established Japanese footballing concepts based on possession football, trying to instil a more direct approach and some extra physicality to their play. That involved players such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki losing a grip on their starting berths. Nobody was ever quite sure what Halilhodzic’s best starting line-up, though. He used 68 different players in his three years in charge.
Following “poor communication with the players” and some disappointing friendly results, the Japanese Football Association took the uncharacteristically risky decision of sacking Halilhodzic just two months before the World Cup. Some were surprised to see the JFA be so drastic but with the team’s stars past their prime and the new recruits not performing well enough, most felt the change was needed. A draw with lowly Mali and a defeat to Ukraine, who have not qualified for Russia, drove that point home.
Brought in to replace Halilhodzic is one of the country’s most respected coaches in Akira Nishino, a man with great pedigree but out of coaching for over two years. He still holds the all-time record for most J.League wins as a club boss (270) also winning the AFC Champions League with Gamba Osaka in 2008. In 2016 he moved into the JFA as a technical director working with Halilhodzic and the players, but not in a coaching role. While his CV is impressive and he knows the squad well, he hasn’t got much time to return himself to the coaching mindset and get Japan in shape for their Group H opener with Colombia on June 19.
It’s certainly been a tough start to the role for Nishino who oversaw consecutive 2-0 defeats in his first two matches. The first was at home to Ghana, another nation who missed out on the World Cup, the second against high-flying Switzerland. However, Japan ended their warm-up campaign on a positive note in a 4-2 win over Paraguay.
AFC THIRD ROUND QUALIFYING
Most starts: Maya Yoshida (10), Hiroki Sakai (9), Genki Haraguchi (8), Masato Morishige, Hotaru Yamaguchi (both 7).
Most goals: Haraguchi (4), Takuma Asano, Yuya Kubo (both 2).
Most assists: Hiroshi Kiyotake, H Sakai (both 3).
THE KEY TARGETS
Midfielder Genki Haraguchi (£6.0m) was Japan’s top scorer in qualifying find the net four times. In fact, he went on a run of four consecutive matches where he scored in each one, adding an assist in the crucial win over Australia which booked passage to Russia. The Hertha Berlin wide-man started both of Nishino’s first two friendly matches and looks nailed on to be in the Japan team in June 19.
Left-back Hiroki Sakai (£4.0m) could prove to be an essential budget enabler for World Cup Fantasy managers. The Marseille full-back’s strength on the overlap and fine crosses led to three assists in qualifying. Owing to time out with a knee injury during the spring, Sakai didn’t start either of Nishino’s first two matches in charge, coming on as a second-half substitute against Switzerland earlier this month and against Paraguay. If he can get his match fitness back up to scratch, given his importance in qualifying (nine starts), he should be a regular starter. He has the potential to be the perfect £4.0m investment with assists thrown into the mix as well.
The talismanic figure of Keisuke Honda (£6.5m) has returned to the forefront of the national team after losing such a strong claim to a starting place under Halilhodzic. Owing to the Bosnian’s attempts to change the team’s style, Honda made just six starts in qualifying but still contributed a goal and two assists. He has been virtually ever-present since Nishino took over and seems certain to feature from the beginning against Colombia. As Japan’s set-piece taker, he could be the best way to invest in their attack.
THE LONG SHOTS
Midfielder Makoto Hasebe (£5.0m) was involved from the start in Nishino’s first two matches in charge suggesting his place against Colombia is fairly set in stone. The 34-year-old holding midfielder registered two assists in just six starts during qualifying and was also a key player for Eintracht Frankfurt as they shocked Bayern Munich in the 2018 DFB Pokal final.
While Honda has reclaimed his place in the side under Nishino, striker Shinji Okazaki (£6.0m) finds himself largely on the bench still. Just as he has shown with Leicester though, whenever he’s on the pitch, he tends to do well. In just four qualifying starts he contributed a goal and an assist. Furthermore, Okazaki comes into the World Cup on the back of scoring six Premier League goals and assisting another three (his best tally to date in England) in just 1314 minutes of football this season. Investing in him would prove something of a risk considering his game-time is limited but it could pay off.
Also fighting to get back into the side is former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa (£6.5m), although his struggle has been largely based around injuries. The Borussia Dortmund man has been plagued with an ankle problem since February and hasn’t started a match either for club or country in four months. However, he looked good when he came on as a second-half substitute against Ghana last month and registered a goal and two assists in the recent win over Paraguay. Kagawa scored just once in qualifying but that was during his battle with Halilhodzic which only afforded him five starts. His overall record for his country, 30 goals in 91 caps, suggests if he gets back into the team he will be involved in Japan’s scoring.
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World Cup Data
We’re delighted to offer World Cup data as an early addition to our regular season offering to help those playing Fantasy games over the summer.
We’ve secured Opta data, not only for the tournament itself, which begins on June 14 but also from the Qualifying Rounds for Europe and South America and for international friendlies involving the participating nations. This includes all the matches played right up to the tournament kick-off.
Just to stress, this World Cup offering comes packaged with the regular Fantasy Football Scout membership.
Check out this new trailer previewing the World Cup content below…